I left Taiwan [in 1999] feeling elated–not so much because of the election results, which were mixed. [Democratic Progressive Party candidate] Chen Shui-bian lost in Taipei; [DPP candidate] Frank Hsie won in Kaohsiung…. It would be a bit more than a year later that Taiwan passed the real test of democracy: a peaceful transition from one party to another. In March 2000, Chen Shui-bian was elected as the first DPP president of Taiwan, breaking the KMT [Kuomintang] monopoly on power….
Until the 1980s, Taiwanese dissidents abroad were as impotent and as easily dismissed as irrelevant and quixotic as the mainland dissidents are today. But when Taiwan politics began to turn after the Kaohsiung Incident in 1979 [in which police clashed with pro-democracy demonstrators], the overseas activists had the international contacts, the expertise, and the financial resources to play a vital role. They knew how Washington worked. Above all, despite their feuding and the occasionally wild and desperate actions, they had kept the flame alive during the dark years, rather like governments in exile, offering hope that one day change would come.
And yet the case of Taiwan sits oddly within the history of China, for Taiwanese freedom was built in defiance, not only of the People’s Republic of China but of the idea of One China. I was often struck by the Japanophilia among the older dissidents [many of whom have Japanese nicknames] and their contempt for “those Chinese” on the mainland, and I assumed it was a necessary defense against official propaganda of reuniting the motherland. As a gut feeling or prejudice, anti-mainlander feeling can be disturbing. But the belief that the ancient Chinese drive toward central power over a vast land has been inimical to political freedom is surely right. For democracy to succeed, “China” probably needs more Taiwans.
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 205-207